THE BLOG

Yoga: How We Help Veterans of Combat Reintegrate Into Their Lives

11/16/2012 01:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 16, 2013

This is an interview with Sarah Plummer, who started practicing yoga in 2001 in order to cope with overuse injuries from soccer and military training. After years of dabbling in the practice, in 2006, during her second deployment to Iraq, she became "hooked." Yoga "saved my life when I was on the edge. At a time when I felt like I was suffocating, yoga was the one thing that got me doing something very simple each day -- breathing." If she could roll off her bed, onto her yoga mat and start there, she knew she would make it another day during the war. In January 2012, she did an intensive yoga teacher training in Costa Rica and became certified to teach others this healing art.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My own laundry list of physical and mental injuries made me want to help others coping with the same challenges. I've had crazy things happen to me, like getting hit by a car, struck by lightning, combined with Marine Corps wear-and-tear for over a decade. I used to think yoga was a crock of hippie hocus-pocus. Originally, yoga was only a physical thing to me, another type of workout, but as soon as it took on spiritual meaning, it catapulted my life forward, which is why spreading the message of yoga is near and dear to my heart. It has saved my life on many occasions. I know yoga is one of the main reasons why I thrive today and I am passionate about bringing this life-saving therapy to others. At first, I only wanted to do the ashtanga-type classes. Now, although I love the physical challenge, the "type" of yoga that serves me best is gentler, more meditative. I've seen this trend in others I teach. Above all else, though, I try to keep yoga fun for myself and for those I teach.

What did you know about the veterans you were working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how have those assumptions changed?

I assumed they would only want something that was very physically challenging. However, the balancing series and slower paces are often a better fit for most of them. It depends on who the students are. As my teacher taught me, effective teaching is all about being astute -- you should adapt your class to your students (if necessary). If you are in tune with your students, you should be able to do that in a way that best serves them. The class should never be about what the teacher wants, but what the students need -- and that's going to be different every single time.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

I spend more time talking in the beginning, introducing myself so they know I can relate to some of their experiences, and explaining what we'll be doing and why and how the movements are connected to mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our lives. I also try to get the students laughing. I believe laughter is the best meditation because in that instant that your eyes are closed, your mouth is open, and your head is tipped back, nothing else is on your mind. You are clear. Veterans with PTSD need that clarity, even if for a moment, because their minds are racing most of the day and night.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

As a new teacher, I'm still learning how to best serve my students. When a student gets frustrated and we're in a group setting, it's hard to tend to him or her without feeling like I am neglecting the flow for the other students. So, I try to read the situation, put the class in a posture that is comfortable to hold, and go speak quietly to the student who is frustrated, and give her options for where to go next. Sometimes even a light touch can work wonders. Many veterans constantly have walls up, and close themselves off from human touch; being able to offer a gentle adjustment, or assistance getting deeper into a fold, can feel really good to them. I love seeing them completely relax after fighting a posture, and even see them smile when they notice the change in their own body and mind.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in military settings?

Do not walk into a class with assumptions. They will read your energy. Get to know your students as much as possible. Many of us military folks already feel like just another cog in the wheel; try to make them feel special and like you're really there for them. Be fully present.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

I hope that yoga becomes increasingly mainstream. I hear a lot of critiques of "westernized" yoga, but ultimately I don't care what "type" of yoga you're doing, if you're out there giving it a try, great! Stick with it. And I can empathize with people who poo-poo it at first, because I used to be one of them. Had I not had the option to do a "hardcore" yoga class first, I may have never gotten to the spiritual part of my practice I live with today. I hope for the same availability for others. Let them practice the "kind" of yoga they want to.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Since I began teaching, I understand the principle of "yoga off the mat" more and more every day. I teach veterans -- who tend to be survivors of anything from combat to sexual assault -- that you can apply yogic principles to all areas of your life. Service isn't just about building homes on the weekend, although of course that is admirable and we need that, too, but about helping people live better, accept themselves, and move forward. It's why the title of my new book is Just Roll With It.

Get unstuck and just roll with Sarah at her next live event! And visit her website: www.SemperSarah.com

Editor: Alice Trembour

Because of stories like these, The Give Back Yoga Foundation is committed to offering free yoga and meditation resources to veterans nationwide. We have helped create and distribute empirically-tested multi-media resources to over thirty VA hospital facilities, various Soldier and Family Assistance Centers, and wellness programs for wounded warriors.

Our Goal for the Coming Year:

To bring our Yoga For Veterans Toolkits, developed by expert teachers with years of experience in working with soldiers with post-traumatic stress, to at least 10,000 veterans across the country.

Demand Continues!

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Coping with Trauma
, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website, if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans. This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.

Help our heroes transition back to a civilian lifestyle by giving them easy access to mindfulness meditation. Veterans who take the class at the Washington, DC VA say mindfulness meditation helps them sleep better! Access is easy and anonymous. http://ow.ly/eAj77

GaiamTV.com, the world's largest online collection of conscious media including films, documentaries, yoga, and health and wellness videos, is a proud media partner of the Give Back Yoga Foundation (GBYF). Together, GaiamTV.com and GBYF are helping to bring the gift of yoga to veterans and supporting programs that empower individuals, build relationships and communities, and cultivate a peaceful and healing yoga practice for all. Check out our direct link on GaiamTV.com and let us know what you think and what else you'd like to see: www.gaiamtv.com/gby

Join us at the Yoga Service Conference at Omega June 7-9th http://yogaservicecouncil.org/?page_id=5

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